Urban resilience, an increasingly important concept
Speech delivered by the Defence Ministry Secretary at the workshop on
Urban Resilience organised by the United Nations Human Settlements
program at the Waters Edge Hotel in Battaramulla recently.
The Mihindusenpura flats at Dematagoda. Buildings such as this
will replace underserved settlements
Urban Resilience is becoming an increasingly important concept in the
present era. It entails the ability of cities to prepare for, respond to
and recover from natural and man-made crises with minimum damage to
public safety and health, the economy and security.
As global populations become more and more concentrated in cities, it
is essential that town planners, representatives of municipal and urban
authorities, and other stakeholders become more familiar with techniques
and best practices that can be adopted to enhance urban resilience.
This is a particularly pressing need in older towns and cities that
have experienced haphazard planning and unauthorised construction
activities over time.
As it is a country currently undergoing significant urbanisation,
with more than half its population likely to live in cities by the year
2020, the concept of urban resiliency is becoming increasingly important
for Sri Lanka. In this context, I would like to commend UN Habitat and
the UDA on their foresight and initiative in organising this workshop,
which brings together many of the key stakeholders in this effort.
I also take this opportunity to thank the Government of Australia for
its generous sponsorship of the Program on Disaster Resilient City
Development Strategies for Sri Lankan Cities.
I am aware that Disaster Risk Reduction Plans have been formulated
for several cities throughout the country and that more are presently
being formulated. This is an important undertaking, and the assistance
granted as well as the work put in by the various institutions involved
in this program is truly appreciated by the Government of Sri Lanka.
I will briefly highlight some of the recent initiatives of the
Ministry of Defence and Urban Development that are aligned with the
theme of urban resilience.
One of the major hazards faced by Colombo, Sri Lanka's largest city,
in the last decade has been flooding caused by unpredicted high
intensity rainfall. These floods were a particular issue for people
living in low lying areas and in underserved settlements, but also
caused life in the city in general to come to a virtual halt.
On one occasion a few years ago, even the Parliament building became
flooded after an unprecedented storm. One of the main reasons for this
flood hazard that affected the greater Colombo metro area was the
filling in of natural marshland and other low-lying lands that served as
natural water retention and catchment areas.
This filling in took place as more and more people migrated from
rural areas and other cities into Colombo over the last several decades,
which caused the city to rapidly expand. Insufficient investment was
made in upgrading the drainage infrastructure, which, together with
changing weather patterns that have increased the severity of storms,
led to the flood hazard.
Overcoming this problem was a priority of the Government, which has
undertaken several initiatives over the past few years to address the
underlying issues leading to the flood hazard.
The Metro Colombo Urban Development Project implemented under the
Ministry of Defence and Urban Development and financed through a World
Bank loan is the primary effort that focuses on improving the drainage
The creation of new micro drainage channels throughout the city,
improvements to primary and secondary canals, and the complete
rehabilitation of the long neglected Beira lake at the city centre are
among the core objectives of this landmark Project.
In addition to these initiatives, the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and
Development Corporation has dredged a number of filled in marshlands
arround the Greater Colombo Metro Area, creating lakes for water
retention in places such as Rampalawatta, Pelawatte and Thalawathugoda.
The Werassaganga development program will address the flooding issue
in the south of the Metro Area. This project will ensure the further
development of the canal system and the creation of water retention
Through these major infrastructure improvement projects, it is
envisaged that the issue of flooding in Colombo will be significantly
From a regulatory perspective, steps are also being taken to ensure
that there is no more filling in of low lying areas or natural
marshland, so that natural drainage systems will not degrade any
One of the foremost urban development initiatives of the Government
in recent years has been the uplifting of underserved settlements
through the provision of new housing. Before this project began, Colombo
had nearly 70,000 families living in shanties and slums.
Through the Relocation of Underserved Settlements Program, these
families are being given good quality housing in medium-to-high rise
housing complexes located in reasonable proximity to their original
This is to ensure that there will be minimal disruption to their
lives, since they do not have to find new jobs or find new schools for
In addition, by introducing these families to a much better and more
comfortable way of life, the project will help to create the domestic
environment they need to achieve social mobility.
From the perspective of resiliency, we should not forget that most of
these underserved settlements were located in low-lying areas such as
the strategic reservations of the canals and railways and they were
therefore more vulnerable to flooding than the rest of the city's
Furthermore, because of the haphazard nature and the unsanitary and
unhygienic conditions of the slums and shanties, the people living in
them were at high risk of other hazards such as fire and disease
epidemics such as dengue and diahrroea.
Considering this, it should be noted that the relocation program has
greatly helped reduce the vulnerability of this population segment to
such hazards, thereby improving the city's resiliency. Another very
visible issue that used to affect Colombo was the accumulation of
uncollected garbage on its streets. Piles of garbage were not only
unsightly, but also led to other negative consequences such as the
proliferation of stray dogs and greater risk of rabies infections, an
increase in incidence of mosquito borne diseases.
As a result of stricter attention being paid to the administration of
garbage collection contracts and the introduction of a few innovative
solutions, such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection
division within the Police to monitor the streets, this issue has
largely been solved.However, the pollution of our waterways and even of
groundwater through the discharge of leachate from improperly disposed
solid waste is a serious long-term issue, and a proper mechanism for
addressing it has long been a requirement for Colombo.
A feasibility study in this regard has just recently been completed,
and plans have been drawn to transport the collected garbage via rail to
a sanitary landfill that will be built some distance away from the city.
The first contract for the project is about to be tendered.
A particular feature of this project is that the sanitary landfill to
be constructed will be able to absorb the municipal solid waste
generated from the metro area for a period of thirty years.
As Sri Lanka embarks on its rapid development drive, maintaining high
quality urban spaces is an essential requirement.
If the standards of our cities can be improved, and a better working
environment as well as better facilities for families to spend their
leisure time can be provided, the country will be able to draw in many
more tourists, attract more foreign and local investment, and encourage
more expatriates to return here.
It is with all of this in mind that the Government has taken a great
deal of effort to improve the standards of Colombo, its suburbs, and
other key cities around the country. Sri Lanka requires clean, green,
livable urban spaces that encourage a high quality of life.
It is with a view to ensuring this that the Government has taken a
variety of urban development initiatives over the past few years. The
creation of more public spaces for people to use and enjoy has been
foremost amongst these undertakings. City parks and other recreational
spaces have been renovated and greatly improved, including Independence
Square, Water's Edge, the Nawala Wetland Park, the Viharamahadevi Park,
and Thalawathugoda in the greater Colombo area.
It is vitally important from a social perspective as well as a public
health perspective that good quality open spaces be available for people
to exercise in and use for recreation.
The creation of these new parks has achieved that objective.
Similarly, the renovation and repurposing of historic buildings such as
the Dutch Hospital, the old Colombo Racecourse and the Former Auditor
General's Building into centres for entertainment, dining and shopping
has added much more vibrancy to life in Colombo.
Similar projects are also taking place in other historic cities such
as Galle. That thousands of people now enjoy the new public open spaces
and recreation facilities on a daily basis shows how greatly beneficial
these projects have been to the public at large.
The development of roads in urban areas is another important recent
undertaking. Efforts are being taken to improve the quality of the
streets; the one way system in Colombo is being expanded to ease traffic
flow, and common conduits are being introduced for utility services
along the streets while drainage facilities have also been upgraded.
The improvements made for the pavements is also significant. Most of
the people in this country use public transport. They therefore require
good quality pavements.
Unfortunately, for many years, the emphasis given to this aspect of
the streets was poor. Pavements did not exist along parts of some roads,
and in others, they suffered from very poor quality, included broken
paving and potholes. In some areas, street vendors had built
unauthorised structures impeding the pavements, leading to people having
to walk on the road in the midst of traffic.All of these issues are now
being addressed and high quality pavements are being created on all
major roads. This will help our cities to be much more people friendly.
Another important aspect of city development is beautification.
During the thirty years of war in Sri Lanka, the natural beauty of
Colombo in particularly had become obscured by unsightly walls. Since
the dawn of peace, the unnecessary walls in public places have been
dismantled, opening up many of the city's architectural treasures and a
lot of its greenery.
Projects are underway to preserve and protect the existing ecosystem
in the greater Colombo area.
These include the creation of eco parks in Talawatugoda and at
Beddegana, which will preserve the existing marshlands and provide
sanctuary to the unique wildlife that inhabits these areas. Steps are
also being taken through a Green Growth program to enhance the greenery
in the city overall.
As a result of all these initiatives, Colombo today is one of the
most beautiful major cities in South Asia. The urban development plans
being drawn up for many of our other cities will ensure that they are
all greatly improved in time to come.
Already, a great deal of development has taken place in towns such as
Galle, Matara and Nuwara Eliya and projects are underway in cities such
as Kandy, Jaffna, Batticalao, Kurunegala, and Trincomalee.
As Sri Lanka looks towards the future, one of the most important
aspects it needs to develop is the functionality of its cities.
Many countries around the world are increasingly embracing the smart
city concept, which essentially utilises technology to improve the
efficiency and utility of urban spaces.By improving the availability and
quality of information and communications technology infrastructure, we
can ensure that people have access to information about what is
happening in cities in real time.This will make city life much more
convenient in general, and also has a bearing on urban resiliency in
that critical information about developing crises can be informed to
people in real time, leading to an increase in public safety and
security. Investing in the infrastructure required to reach smart city
status is an area which municipal and local authorities should pay more
attention to in time to come.